Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Maybe it was considered sophisticated in its day, but The Women is an almost
entirely dated show. Its unintended intentions are split between (self) hatred of women
and a celebration of
pinheaded Park Avenue 1930s affluence that's almost nauseating. But it's an excellent
soaper, as they say, and thrills generations of glamour-worshipping fans who revel
in the behind-the-scenes fireworks between MGM brat Norma Shearer and MGM tramp Joan
Mrs. Stephen Haines, or Mary (Norma Shearer) finds out from her wicked grapevine of friends
that her husband Steven is leaving her for a vicious salesgirl turned golddigger, Crystal Allen
(Joan Crawford). Mary has friends, but the majority of them are gossip-loving breakup sightseers
who make cynical bets on who will prevail. Mary has a reputation for being unfashionably loyal and
domestically boring; Crystal has them all intimidated with her ambition and gall. Mary goes out West
to a dude ranch for her divorce, there witnessing fights between her 'friends', mostly over men.
She also sees two alternatives to her predicament - Peggy (Joan Fontaine) rushes back to be reunited with her husband,
while the rich Countess DeLave (Mary Boland) is a saphead romantic on her 3rd or 4th divorce.
Back in New York, a year has passed and Mary's least faithful 'friend', Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind
Russell) visits the deceitful Crystal, who's installed herself in Stephen Haines' house with the
luxuries of Cleopatra, while two-timing him with some cowboy performer. Armed with this information,
and her daughter Mary (Virginia Wiedler)'s insistence that Daddy Really Loves Her,
Mary finally decides to go on the offensive against the husband-stealer.
First things first. MGM in 1939 was indeed a Peyton Place of rivalry among a bunch of female stars who
behaved like cats in heat - for money and the best roles. Norma Shearer, the widow of Irving Thalberg,
practically owned the lot, and consistently received the plum parts, whereas upstart Joan Crawford
was on a popularity downswing, having established herself as a big star, but never as a great actress.
When The Women came along, Crawford had to campaign heavily for the part, which was not a
leading role and technically a step down for her. Showing the survival instincts of a cornered
animal, she not only got the part, but used the gossip about her rivalry with Shearer to propel
herself to the top of the studio again. Director George "I'm not a ladies' director" Cukor did indeed
have to put up with a number of stunts, stemming directly from the hostility between the two women.
This kind of spit and spite wasn't limited to the top ... dogs ... on the lot. In the scene where Paulette Goddard
and Rosalind Russell have a dude ranch catfight, it's obvious that both actresses were tapped into
real resentments of some kind - those shin kicks reportedly resulted in real bruises.
So The Women does crackle with the kind of electricity that comes when rival actors face off
on screen. The theatrical performances of the large cast of women can't be faulted, either. The women
are differentiated into crude types, and the sensitivity of the show can be monitored from the
opening credits that equate each female with a different kind of animal. There's no real respect for
people on view, when the un-glamorous Marjorie Main is compared to a braying horse. For the record, the
cast is both stellar and interesting, with Rosalind Russell the comedy standout, with her character
being both hateful and funny. Paulette Goddard is pert and spunky, Joan Fontaine plain and
simpering, Mary Boland vain and
foolish. Phyllis Povah has a houseful of noisy kids and comes off as some kind of breeding cow - and
one of the more vicious gossips.
Overbearingly ladylike in every gesture, Norma Shearer's Mary has a forcibly softened feminine reaction to
every dark cloud and piece of bad news, always showing in her resignation a perverse strength. It's as if
she were quietly competing for sainthood. Her life is as artificial as any of the others (pony riding in
the morning, home movies for a hobby, domestic tranquility) but she has the inner resolve toward submissive
strength, that the play seeks to honor. Joan Crawford has a field day, easily stealing the whole show by
being catty and evil in just two or three scenes. Her Crystal is dangerous, and the way she baits Stephen
on the phone and bullies Mary during their only meeting selfish and heartless. Frankly, when she smokes in
the bubble bath and rails on about how she's not going to let her 'meal ticket' get away from her, you
can't help but feel that the predatory, calculating Crystal Allen is a lot like Joan Crawford.
The Women is made with top production values that create that familiar, slightly obscene MGM
fantasy where everyone has a white telephone and is separated from common life by a screen of servants.
This is the second half of the film's appeal - it brought to life the fashion magazine, society-page
fantasies of the time. The women of this story are what the Merry Widow killer Joseph Cotten in
Shadow of a Doubt is talking about when he
rants obsessively about, '... useless women, fat women, women eating the money, drinking the money.' These
high-maintenance creatures live in lavish penthouses, are waited on hand and foot, and constantly go out
in expensive designer clothes to beautify themselves, so as to be in top shape to go out again in
fancy designer clothes. The movie stops dead at one point for a fashion show, switching to
Technicolor for a half-reel of haute-couture. This is the secondary subject of the film: conspicuous
consumption of luxuries, the rich celebrating their ability to live literally on a different
plane of reality from common humans.
In a way, the women of The Women are the ultimate success stories in the female drive for security,
the drive to make a secure nest for the chicks and to make sure the male animal plays his part, namely,
Provide. The play's main gimmick, the fact that the men are never seen and almost never heard, accentuates
their status as drone accessories - they only exist to provide all these female necessities - solid
names, solid homes, and reams of cold cash to support life at 'the level to which we're accustomed.'
Even in Mary's supposedly perfect marriage, their relationship is only a romantic one, a direct
thread to a honeymoon experience. The men are off in some other dimension doing the work of industry
or finance that these little female creatures have no part of. They're only there to be soft and
receptive when their God-men return at night, and the idea is that even the housewife has to be Mata
Hari to keep predatory shopgirls from poaching their property. It's a depressing state of affairs. You
don't talk to your man, you connive to hold him with perfumes and gowns. Why any man should be
interested in any of these reptiles is beyond me, as so few are capable of an honest, down-to-earth
statement. Even Mary tends to think in dramatic ironies and operatic emotions instead of simple
Okay, The Women is obviously stylized and not a literal presentation - it's a satire of the operatic
emotional nonsense, and we're meant to take for granted that the men aren't really that separate from
the women. In 1939, there were huge sections of the cities where men really lived at work,
and the women at home lived in groups during the day. But the fantasy of The Women, considered a
sophisticated show in its time, comes from an elitist viewpoint that denies any realities except
privilege and wealth. These are the 'let them eat cake' people. Claire Booth Luce later became an
international representative for America for conservative administrations; hers was the campaign to
keep films like The Blackboard Jungle from being released abroad, because it gave a 'negative'
picture of America to the world. The nerve, to think herself the political watchdog for America's
A celebration of the petty, the catty, and the squalor of the rich, The Women ends with Mary
set to prevail because she finally (and very unconvincingly) is willing to bare her jungle-red claws
and fight for her man in the female trenches. None of this has anything to do with her relationship
with her husband, which never foundered, even when he divorced her and took up with Crystal. All
those affairs he may be having at work are none of Mary's business. Keeping your man means not
talking to him, but beating up on some other woman, whose fault it always is. (spoiler) The hideous
last shot of Mary walking up a carpeted stairway to the accompaniment of bells and heavenly choir,
arms outstretched in rapture, looks like she's rushing to join Jesus in some kind of religious movie.
Naturally you can't show the male side of this dramatic moment, because it's simply impossible. No
real man can do, when the idea is to worship the ideal of marriage and male dominance so completely.
Warner's DVD of The Women is a solid presentation of this vintage b&w show, with the picture
in particular restored to its original snap and clarity. A few scenes exhibit a bit of instability - as
if the negative had shrunk - but otherwise the show is in perfect shape, even the Technicolor
sequence. There is something to be said for the MGM
Look, at least in the most extreme examples like this picture - the porcelain tubs and fluffy white
carpets and fancy clothes do create a certain state of terminal luxury. Take a look around after turning
off this show. Your place, no matter where you're living, is guaranteed to look like a dump.
Probably with the guiding hand of MGM expert George Feltenstein, the DVD is packed with some
interesting extras. There's a trailer, in much better shape than I've seen it before, along with a
trailer for the musical remake, The Opposite Sex. Funny, but all the coverage for the recent cable
version of The Women doesn't mention the earlier remake. An MGM
short subject, Romance of Celluloid - Hollywood: Style of the World tries to give the
impression that girls in Des Moines are going to rush out and buy expensive fashions just like
they see in those MGM movies. 2
Another short, Romance of Celluloid - From the Ends of the Earth, starts out as a docu on
all the natural resources consumed by MGM every year, and turns into a cheap promo for the 1939
summer lineup of MGM movies. A special extra feature, that Turner tries to include when
available, is a gallery of original surviving music cues. The Women has a very memorable
score, with some playful, fun tunes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Women rates:
Supplements: Trailers, Short subjects, original music cues.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: July 6, 2002
1. The writing and directing aren't as good, but The Opposite Sex,
the later musical
remake with June Allyson (the 50s equivalent of Shearer) and Joan Collins (ditto for Crawford) does
show the men. Sure enough, they're a limp bunch of empty tuxedoes, with Leslie Nielsen somehow
not seeming all that God-like as the hubby.
2. Actually, one of the producers of the Joan Crawford docu Savant cut,
assured me that these movies, and clothes-horse stars like Joan Crawford, were a PR engine for
popularizing the idea of high fashion, and helping to concentrate it in New York.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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